Good copy, bad copy, let's call the whole thing off.
One of my main anxieties as a copywriter isn't whether my words have hit the mark or not, it's whether they're actually being read. I'm convinced that many of the businesses and agencies I write for don't read what I produce - they just publish it. I sometimes have these devious thoughts about misplacing an apostrophe or sneaking in a few lines from Star Wars just to see if they'll notice, but those pesky ethics get the better of me.
This morning it dawned on me: if my clients don't read my work, is the end user (the audience) getting the best bang for their buck?
As copywriters, we'd all like to think that the piece of copy we wrote on the difference between steel blue and royal blue paint is being lapped up like the latest episode of Game of Thrones, but in reality it's probably just filler. Filler is okay. I, like many writers, started out writing filler content and I still do to pay the bills occasionally. It still has to read well, but you know as well as your client that nobody outside of a cardigan and a pair of well trodden slippers is going to even cast their eyes over it, much less engage with it, but that's okay.
What I'm worried about is the good stuff. The articles we labour over. The statistics we pluck from the depths of the internet and cleverly spin into meaningful prose. The witty metaphors we conjure out of thin air. The late Friday nights spent hunched over a keyboard, eyes darting to the unopened bottle of wine in the kitchen every time we hit a full stop.
You see, good copywriting isn't this blog post. It isn't just hammering out words to make a sentence, spilling your thoughts onto a page. I often get briefs that are more thorough and multifaceted than a witness protection programme. It's like signing on as a double agent and being tasked with infiltrating the mob, only minus the sunlight and piña coladas. Audience, tone, voice, brand, style, structure - some clients are very demanding, and rightfully so.
Yet despite clients putting together these labyrinthine briefs, many of them remain convinced that people don't read. The answer? An arbitrary limit on word count. After all, people only look at the headline and the call to action, right?
If you've made it this far, well done. It's either a testament to your endurance as a reader or to my skill as a writer. The jury's out, but I'd bet my best ballpoint that it's the former. Perhaps it's my general bias toward words in general, but I don't think people dislike reading. I understand that marketing copy in certain situations needs to be pithy - emails, landing pages, flyers and other ads all benefit from brevity.
And yet, I find that many of my clients attach arbitrary word count limits to their briefs. Not because of publishing guidelines or UX choices (that's fine), but because they're convinced that nobody wants to read more than 300 words on a web page. If you don't think your audience can read, why hire a writer? Personally, I don't believe that readers suddenly glaze over when they hit a precise word count, because it all depends on what those words are. If you're terrified that your website visitors won't read a whopping 340 words on a subject they're supposedly interested in, you've got bigger problems than word count.
I have a rule when it comes to websites. For every piece of 'impact' copy, there should be a piece of inviting copy. If you did a double-take on a newspaper headline and grabbed it off the shelf only to find there was no actual substance, you wouldn't buy the paper. Some people are happy to skim, but others (most likely, your future customers) need substance before they commit. Whether you're trying to get subscribers, sell products or get people to use your services, don't be afraid to show a little bravery and throw out the word counts now and then. They're boring, limiting and only work to hinder your ultimate goal - to connect and engage.
Last year I wrote a piece on why simple is better when it comes to copywriting. I still believe that, but long form copy has its place and can be just as effective - if not more so in certain situations. A copywriter should be a master communicator. Whether they tell everything there is to tell in a series of punchy headlines, or keep readers engaged from paragraph to paragraph is entirely dependent upon the medium and the readership. In some instances, word limits can lead to that most devilish of things - bad copy - and if there's one thing we can all agree on it's that nobody wants to read rubbish.
Of course, it goes both ways. I once had a client ask me to write a 900 word product description of a handbag they were selling. According to their brief, the handbag had 3 features (aside from the obvious one of being able to carry stuff). Try spreading 'real leather', 'quality zip' and 'silk-lined interior' across 900 words and see how far you get. The result was, naturally, a load of waffle (and I tried very hard).
Here's a thought. Next time you collaborate with a copywriter, invite their thoughts on the brief you've put together. At the very least, make the word limit a guideline instead of a hard rule. It just might be that what you're trying to say in 50 words may shine gloriously in 100 words (or vice versa), attracting more readers as a result. A copywriter should know; that's what you're hiring them for. If copy has wit, charm and conversation at its heart, it'll please readers regardless of its length. Pleased readers engage. Engaged readers act. Consider that before sending a piece back to the chopping block.
If you've made it this far, double well done. Even if you now regret it (it's okay), you've shown that internet users aren't scared of reading.